Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Beyond Nature? Genomic Modification and the Future of Humanity

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Beyond Nature? Genomic Modification and the Future of Humanity

Article excerpt

"Consider the work of God: For who can make straight that which He hath made crooked?" --Ecclesiastes 7:13



Just as humans dreamed of flying (1) long before the Wright Brothers' maiden flight near Kitty Hawk in 1903, (2) visions of altering humanity predate recent leaps in human genome editing technologies. These methods-most notably " CRISPR" (3)--may make possible things that were once the sole province of fiction. (4) But in contrast to the early twentieth century rush to exploit breakthroughs in human powered and controlled aviation, the modern-day reaction to heritable human genome editing is one of hesitation and fear. A robust consensus prevails among expert scientists, physicians, legal experts and ethicists that we should go forward slowly--if at all--with modifying the human genome in ways that promise to extend to future generations. (5) Leading press outlets concur. (6)

The need for extreme caution on human germline modification (7) is defended on a number of grounds: the interests of future generations, safety considerations equality concerns, the evils of eugenics, and the importance of public trust in science. (8) But none of these justifications bears up under scrutiny. Indeed what is most striking about the case made for proceeding at a crawl-with selected research permitted but clinical applications on hold-is how the considerations cited in its favor militate instead for advancing with all deliberate speed.

There is another problem with the "go very slow" approach-namely that events are overtaking it. The simplicity and low cost of some gene editing techniques may enable scientists and others to evade legal limits and ethical guidelines, (9) in effect engaging in what this article terms "genomic moonshining." (10) As a result, efforts to constrain the spread of human germline modification may not only fail to achieve their core aim but drive cutting edge work into the shadows-out of sight of government regulators, trusted medical and scientific organizations, and the general public. The end consequence could be a world in which important biomedical innovation takes place without the benefits of inclusive public deliberation. (11)

This article is organized as follows. Part II describes the promise of heritable genome editing methods and the recent scientific advances that lend urgency to questions regarding when, where, how, by whom, and for what purposes these new technologies will be deployed. Part III examines the dominant views that the best course of action is to "exercise great caution" (12) or even "hit the pause button" (13) when it comes to clinical uses of heritable genome editing technologies. In this Part we argue that such recommendations are rooted in flawed assumptions, including ones about how the current generation can best safeguard and promote the interests of future ones. Although human germline editing entails risks, later generations will likely be better served if present day decision makers embrace the Enlightenment principles of daring to know (14) and harnessing knowledge to improve human lives. (15) Part IV turns to regulatory and governance issues. It explains how all three sectors of the economy-government, nonprofit organizations, and profit-seeking firms-play important roles in biomedicine, and offers suggestions for adapting biomedical oversight to present day realities Part IV also details the value of functioning markets for democratic deliberation about biomedical innovation. In conclusion, Part V offers some thoughts about why human germline modification should attract support from across the political spectrum.



A. Genome Editing: The Next Weapon in The War on Disease

Modern medicine has wrought miracles by delivering effective therapies for a slew of once untreatable maladies. (16) But it still offers far too little to those who suffer from-or are carriers of-serious genetic abnormalities. …

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